Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: "A Golden Swan In Turbulent Waters" By Shamar Rinpoche

"A Golden Swan In Turbulent Waters –
The Life And Times Of The Tenth Karmapa"
Shamar Rinpoche; Birds of Paradise:
Lexington/VA, 2012
Flowery worded hagiographies as reflected in the title of this book are not really my preferred type of literature but I picked up this one anyway because the 10th Karmapa Choying Dorje aka "Golden Swan" spent thirty years in Tibet's borderlands and I was hoping to learn more about the local history of some of the places discussed in Creoles, Lolos And Adventure. To cut a long story short, the kind of information I was on the lookout for was limited. Instead I gained an unexpected insight into a period of Tibetan history that I was used to brush over as "the Great Fifth" aka the 5th Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso unifying all of Tibet under his rule.

Usually upon hearing "history is written by the victors" I immediately think of how the Chinese push their version of Tibetan history onto everyone. But after reading Golden Swan I realised for the first time, that this also true with respect to how our internal history is related to us and how society views events.

We find ourselves in 17th-century Tibet. Draped around the figure of the 10th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu order, the author discusses the rise of the Gelugpas to political power culminating in the establishment of the Ganden Phodrang government in 1642 with the 5th Dalai Lama as its head. We learn about forced conversions of Karma Kagyu monasteries, the Karmapa's escape from Central Tibet and a number of other events of far-reaching consequences both for Tibet’s political development and its Buddhist history.

The 10th Karmapa is portrayed as a dedicated practitioner of Dharma, who saw his main task in ensuring that the Buddhist wisdom of his lineage was passed into good hands. During the long years spent in remote places like Golog, Lithang and Lijiang in China, he founded temples and monasteries some of which still exist today. He gave Dharma teachings to the local population, composed poems, painted and made sculptures. There is a whole chapter about his artwork with illustrations. Readers can see that the 10th Karmapa, as many of his previous reincarnations, was a gifted artist.

Generally the 10th Karmapa is presented as free from worldly concerns, a peaceful, yet fearless and unconventional Bodhisattva. To underline this point the author cites an occurrence when the Karmapa turned down prestigious insignia offered to him by the emperor of China – the same kind, we learn, that were offered to the 5th Dalai Lama earlier and which the latter accepted.

Throughout the book the author shows restraint and avoids direct criticism of the 5th Dalai Lama but it must be in everyone’s back of their minds that when Choying Dorje is portrayed as an ideal Bodhisattva who shunned politics, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso as the head of the government, can only be considered somewhat less than perfect. The author then also concludes in his final summary comparing the two dignitaries:

"The careers and actions of the 5th Dalai Lama and the 10th Karmapa offer a study in contrasts. The Dalai Lama – a highly respected Buddhist scholar and prolific author – was deeply involved in politics. By contrast, […] the Karmapa disdained politics and concentrated on spreading the Dharma, doing good deeds, and creating religious works of poetry and art." (p. 51)

The author directs his criticism mainly at the "Gelug administration", which he holds responsible for the repressive policies and for deliberately creating misunderstandings between the two high Lamas. Only once during the whole read is there a reference that the 5th Dalai Lama must be held accountable for the religious conflicts when the author writes: "Although the Dalai Lama relied on his chief administrator Sonam Chophal to carry out many political duties, the ultimate authority rested in him", and the author goes on to point out how long the amalgamation of politics and religion endured when he says, "This unification of the church and the state existed in Tibet until 2011 when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso formally relinquished his political position as head of the Tibetan government to an elected prime minister." (p. 45)

But the author also emphasises that not all Gelugpas supported the government's policies and its repressive actions against the Karma Kagyu. Some Gelugpas, he writes, preferred to stay clear of politics and focused purely on Dharma but those were a minority easily overruled by their power-hungry peers in the government. Shamar Rinpoche also makes it a point that during the time of Lama Tsongkhapa (1357 – 1419), the founder of the Gelug order, the two Buddhist schools enjoyed excellent relations because not only was Tsongkhapa a devotee of the 4th Karmapa Rolpe Dorje and also greatly respected the 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa but Tsongkhapa also stuck exclusively to Dharma with no political involvements.

By now it becomes clear that Golden Swan is not only a Buddhist hagiography or rnamthar but that there is also an underlying political thesis: Power-hungry, politicised Gelugpas who create dissonance between the 10th Karmapa and the 5th Dalai Lama allied themselves with a foreign army (Mongol) to establish power in the form of the Ganden Phodrang government; by doing so they were responsible for destroying the hitherto religious harmony prevalent for 300 years with the Karma Kagyu as the widely practiced Buddhist school in Central Tibet; the politicsed Gelugpas then went on to also establish relations with the Manchu rulers in China in order to preserve and expand Gelugpa control of Tibet; in doing so the Ganden Phodrang government eventually caused Tibet's political downfall: Through allying themselves with the rulers of China in order to hold the upper hand in Tibet, the Gelupgpa-dominated government provided the basis for the current claim by the People’s Republic of China that Tibet is a historical part of its territory.

To strengthen his thesis the author then cites a prophecy said to have appeared in many Termas. These are texts or objects believed to have been hidden by the Indian saint Padmasambhava in the 8th century when he came to spread Buddhism in Tibet. The author writes for example:

"In the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries, all the terlung sections found in the discovered terma texts contained the same prediction: one day the Yellow (Gelug) sect would invite the evil Mongolian armies into Tibet, destroy the genuine Dharma and ultimately bring about the downfall of Tibet." (p. 7)

For a Tibetan like me who grew up more or less unaware that the official version of our history could be "Gelugpa-censored", the thesis in Golden Swan is a bomb. However resorting to a Terma to back it up is unconvincing. There is neither a reference nor a picture. If there were that many Termas containing this prophecy, as the author writes, at least one could have been photographed and included in the book. And to convince skeptics for good the author could have made use of the latest scientific methods to determine the age of the Terma and bam! There you go! The Terma is genuine! But without further proof it's easy to discard the prophecy as a retrospective fabrication. Even more so when it's an open secret that Gelugpas are suspicious by default when it comes to Termas: Anyone can dig up something claiming it's a message buried ages ago by some saint - too bad for the lost opportunity.

It must also be noted that the author of the book cannot be considered an innocent by-stander: Shamar Rinpoche is the 14th Shamarpa or "Red Hat Lama" of the Karma Kagyu order. Historically the Shamarpas functioned as personal teachers of the Karmapas. So Golden Swan really offers an unusually intimate view of the life and times of the 10th Karmapa as these two Tulku lineages have had a very close relationship over many lifetimes. This becomes also evident from some of the sources used for writing the book. With the 10th Karmapa, the inclined reader is introduced to a person whose life can become an inspiration for one's own Dharma practice as in fact all life-stories of great Lamas are said to be. The hagiographic strand of the book is beautifully told and illustrated.

Critics will not oversee some juicy details however. The Ganden Phodrang government exerted pressure on predecessors of the author so that Shamarpas no. 11, 12 and 13 had to go underground. Only in the aftermath of Indian exile and the weakening of central Tibetan power was the Shamarpa - some say the second oldest reincarnation lineage of Tibet - able to publicly resurface. Does the author have an old score to settle? Is this what the book is about?

In an irony of fate the old conflict between the 10th Karmapa and the 5th Dalai Lama and their adherents has found its extension into our times: The author openly challenged the current Dalai Lama over who has the legitimacy to determine the 17th reincarnation of the Karmapa. Not only does the Shamarpa disagree with the Dalai Lama's choice and announced his own candidate, but he also denies the Dalai Lama the basic right to confirm reincarnations in the Karma Kagyu order.

The rules of the game haven't changed either in the last 400 years: One side has nothing but the Dharma to advance its position; the other side has political power, prestige and majority backing. The result is that the Tibetan Buddhist world has two concurrent Karmapas, a divided and politicised Sangha, and an ugly legal battle over which candidate inherits assets in the form of Dharma centres and temples worth millions of dollars around the world.

Few Tibetans seem to pay attention to the Shamarpa's position. It’s history as written by the victors. That’s exactly why "A Golden Swan In Turbulent Waters" deserves to be read: Because it is history as remembered by the defeated party. It helps break our viewing habits and expand our perception of our history. After reading this book it becomes clear that we need more impartial historical research to better understand the period from 1642 to 1950. My subjective impression is that a lot of the historical research is preoccupied with the international relations' perspective in order to defend our historical independence in front of the world. We have been consciously ignoring a critical discussion of our history for fear of appearing disunited and weakening our position vis-à-vis China in our quest to regain some degree of control.

But if we do not put our house in order by thoroughly reappraising some of the past events, growing together will remain superficial and fragile. Tibetans have a way of covering things up. We shy away from addressing issues. Instead of an honest, personally detached and factual historical reappraisal of our religious history we prefer to gloss over old conflicts by propagating "non-sectarian" Rimé Buddhism. That's our way of dealing with the problem. On the surface everything looks harmonious, but below the fashionable political correctness, old animosities and prejudices linger on because accounting for the past was never done. Those who try quickly risk to be branded as troublemakers weakening unity when it’s actually uniformity that is being propagated. In such an atmosphere many a thinking Tibetan may preventively resort to self-censorship or prefer to remain silent altogether.

Even Shamar Rinpoche seems to practice a form of self-censorship by writing the whole book very cautiously perhaps to avoid more controversy. The forced conversions of Karma Kagyu monasteries under the 5th Dalai Lama for example, are touched upon but the author does not go into details. I for one would have been interested to learn how the Gelugpas proceeded in their conversions. Did the Ganden Phodrang government use the Mongol army to do the job? Or did they send loads of Gelug monks to preach their version of Tibetan Buddhism? How did the conversions unfold? They seem to have been extremely successful because many of the previously Karma Kagyu monasteries on the fringes of Tibet were converted to Gelug precisely during the 5th Dalai Lama’s reign.

It speaks for Shamar Rinpoche as a Lama and a person when he avoids harsh language and holds information back on the forced conversions in order not to disturb people’s peace of mind and harm “unity”. Ignorance is bliss. But if we want to honestly grow together as a people we must learn to objectively look at all the facts. We must learn to ask uncomfortable questions not because we are eager to blame others but out of a genuine concern to understand and learn. From this point of view it is a pity that Shamar Rinpoche didn’t elaborate.

Converts may put the book away disillusioned with how Tibetan Buddhism is so messed up with politics. Gelug readers may sulk and act offended. Misled by the author's background, they may suspect him of pursuing a personal agenda; they may exclaim these stories are so old and irrelevant that we should put them behind us. But it's precisely Gelugpas who would benefit the most from reading Golden Swan because it exposes the fundamental structural problem at the heart of Tibet's largest order: The amalgamation with politics and the associated problem of creating advantages for one’s own group, distorting the Dharma and neglecting the material and intellectual development of society. People seem to have forgotten that when Lama Tsongkhapa "founded" the Gelug order he did so to reform Tibetan Buddhism, not to rule over people.

All this is relevant even after the 14th Dalai Lama's resignation from power in 2011, which also marks the formal end of Gelug-style Ganden Phodrang rule created by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. In practice though many Tibetans still continue to pin all their hopes on the Dalai Lama for a solution of the political problem with China. The government-in-exile or Central Tibetan Administration as it is now called also looks to the Dalai Lama for support and legitimacy. In preemptive obedience it rules in total accordance with his political and religious views although the latter abdicated from government and although religion should have no business in politics. 

In contrast to mature democracies the public dialogue in Tibetan society is not conducted broadly enough by the media nor by politicians. There is barely any stimulation. Subsequently those who think outside of the box with a critical mind seem few. Golden Swan presents 17th-century Tibetan history from an unconventional angle. It is an invitation to approach the topic with concentration and reflection and deserves our attention. The author has nothing to loose: Tibetan society seems to have written him off. Non-partisan readers however, who won't let someone's unpopularity stain their judgment, may have something to gain.

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